“You have ten minutes.”
“Ten minutes? Ten minutes for what?” Steve asked in exasperation, still tense, his shield held up defensively as Red Skull drifted away from them, watching all of them warily from a dozen yards or so.
Nebula’s eyes narrowed as she watched Red Skull as everyone began talking amongst themselves, confusion and caution and suspicion warring in their words.
“We can’t trust him,” Bucky said firmly, his eyes on the wraith. His posture was stiff to the point of looking painful. “He’s a fucking monster, we can’t trust him.”
“He’s the keeper of the stone,” Clint countered. “I think he’s the only thing we can trust about this place.” He was fiddling with the hilt of his katana. “He explained what we had to do when Nat and I came here - and we got the stone. He didn’t lie.”
“So,” Nebula finally spoke up, “What we need to do is split up. A search group for each of the three.”
“You’re right,” Stephen said. “We have ten minutes to separate into three teams, decide who’s looking for who.”
“That is not what we should do,” Steve immediately diagreed. “The last thing we should do is split up. We’re on a planet we aren’t familiar with, going up against -” he motioned to Red Skull, waving his arm in the general direction of the place, “- who knows what else. If we stick together we can do this.”
“You’re one to talk about sticking together,” Stephen ground out. “We have to break into smaller parties. We play by the rules of this place,” Stephen said, before he lifted a shaky hand in Steve’s direction, “not yours, Captain Rogers.”
Steve opened his mouth to say something before he just snapped it shut, his expression a hard scowl. They stared each other down for a few seconds before Nebula rolled her eyes, breaking off from the group and going to stand by herself.
“Where are you going?” Rocket asked.
“I’m starting the group that’s going to be looking for my sister.” She turned cold eyes onto everyone else. “We’re wasting time. We have about five minutes left and we haven’t decided how the groups will be split. I doubt we trust this thing,” she jerked her head in Red Skull’s direction, “to decide them at random.”
There were nods of agreement before Rhodey and Clint both broke off at the same time heading to stand in different places.
“Nat’s party, with me,” Clint announced.
“Tony’s search and rescue, we’re over here,” Rhodey called out.
Without so much as a second’s hesitation, the Guardians all moved to stand by Nebula. Bruce and Wanda went over to Clint. Steve and Bucky exchanged a glance, a silent conversation held within those seconds of eye contact, before they joined Rhodey.
“Let’s go get her, Nick,” Maria said, walking past Fury towards Clint.
“Been a while since I’ve been out in the field,” Fury commented, falling into step beside Agent Hill. “Good thing I’m a fucking fast learner.”
Peter started heading towards Rhodey just as Stephen said, “Peter.”
“You’re not telling me I can’t go find Tony,” he instantly shot out, cutting him off before he could even think about sending him to wait in the ships.
Stephen gave him a wry smile. “I was going to say let’s go join Colonel Rhodes before they leave without us.”
“R-right,” Peter agreed, walking with Stephen to Tony’s rescue party and completely missing the steely glare between Stephen and Steve.
Sam broke that up, however, when he jogged over to Steve, giving him a pat on the back. “I’d join you, but I think I’m going to go help keep them in line,” he said, motioning towards Clint and Banner and the rest of their group.
Steve gave him a knowing look. “Don’t do anything stupid,” Steve finally smiled.
“I think Bucky can answer that for you,” Sam laughed.
Bucky rolled his eyes. “We’re taking all the stupid with us, punk. Sam’ll be fine.”
“Be safe, Sam,” Steve finished.
“You, too, Cap. Keep Spidey safe. Tony will kill us if anything happens to the kid,” Sam told them.
“Do you forget the way he took us down with his webs?” Bucky asked. He glanced over at Peter who was in his Iron Spider suit. “And now he’s got the newest suit Tony made for him?” Bucky grimaced. “You should be asked the kid to take care of us dinosaurs.”
Sam laughed at that, shaking his head, and gave them one last nod before he moved over to Clint’s group.
Thor and Loki, Hope and Scott, and T’Challa, Shuri, and Okoye were still debating what group they were going to join.
Shuri looked bored as T’Challa and Okoye came up with points and counterpoints for all the groups. She raised her hand, waiting a few beats before she waved it around and caught their attention.
“I told Peter’s Aunt that I would watch his back,” she said. “So I’m joining the group going after Tony Stark.” And with that, she turned around, heading right towards Peter and Doctor Strange.
T’Challa and Okoye could do nothing other than follow, knowing that when Shuri got something in her head, it was practically impossible for her to drop it.
Thor nudged Loki’s arm. “Best we join the Guardians and help find Gamora. Don’t want the others second guessing your intentions and focusing on you rather than on whatever we’ll face.”
Loki nodded at that, his eyebrows raised, seemingly impressed. “I’m glad you brought it up. I was sure you’d want to join your Doctor’s group and -” his eyes swept over the team that was going after Natasha, landing on Clint before quickly flitting away, “- I don’t think Barton would have been happy to have me near him.”
“Then, to the Guardians,” Thor said, turning towards Quill and Nebula.
“Wait - Thor!” Bruce called out, jogging over to the pair.
“Looks like you have to explain our choice to your doctor,” Loki commented as Bruce approached them.
“You two coming?” Bruce asked when he was standing in front of them.
“Oh, uh,” Thor began, shooting Loki a pleading look.
Taking pity on him, Loki sighed. “While we are fond - my brother, mostly - of the teamwork we share with you, I could be a,” he paused, the word tasting like lead, “liability.”
“But I know you’re on our side now,” Bruce said. “I know you’re a part of the team.”
Even though it was only a simple reminder, Loki found himself extremely grateful to hear that someone other than Thor believed in him. “That’s not enough though,” Loki continued, although it pained him to admit it out loud. He wasn’t enough. “You trust me, Thor trusts me, but no one else does. The Guardians have no reason to trust me or distrust me, and it seems our strengths would be put to work best with them.”
Bruce nodded, gaze dropping as his shoulders sagged a little. “That’s - yeah. Yeah, this is probably the best plan.” He gave them both an encouraging smile. “See you when this is all over?”
“Of course,” Thor promised.
“No more faking your death?” Bruce asked, his smile turning a little teasing now as he turned to Loki.
He rolled his eyes. “No promises, Doctor Banner.” Loki gave Bruce a tentative pat on the arm. “Good luck.”
Surprised at Loki’s friendly gesture, both Bruce and Thor exchanged one last look before they each headed to their respective groups.
“You’re not in charge here, buddy,” Quill quipped as soon as Thor joined their group.
“Neither are you,” Thor shot back with an easy grin.
Rocket smacked Quill’s leg with the butt of his gun. “We both know Nebula’s in charge here, you idiots.”
Hope and Scott could hear their little exchange as they looked the groups over one last time.
Finally, Sam called out, “Hope! Drag Tiny’s ass over here! We could use another couple people on this team to make them all even.”
“Well, you heard the man,” Hope shrugged, going over to Natasha’s search party with Scott a step behind her, grumbling about the Falcon and how now Spiderman had the Cap with him.
Seeing the groups finally made, Red Skull drifted back over to them. “Now, you will head towards the mountain. You shall be tried. You shall be tested. And if you succeed, you will recover the souls. And if you fail, you will leave empty handed.”
A golden fog started rising from the ground, spreading out all around them, obscuring the other groups. There were shouts and cries as it had startled everyone, but suddenly the only voices they could hear were those of their teammates. There was no trace of the others.
“Go forth. Stick together,” they heard faintly, the voice coming from the direction they’d seen the mountain. “Do not get lost. Because if you do -” The voice dropped to barely a whisper, drifting to them through the fog, “- you may just join the souls in the stone.”
They weren’t sure how much time had passed, but they knew that it had been at least over an hour since they’d lost contact with the other groups. Nebula kept tirelessly trekking forward, Groot and Mantis right behind her. Rocket and Quill were flanking the sides and Drax, Thor, and Loki were all keeping watch at the back of the group. There was tense silence, filled with only a few mild jabs and jokes. Even they didn’t feel like it was the time or place to fool around.
The fog made it look like the light from a sunset was filtering in, bathing everything gold. It would have been pretty, comforting even, in any other circumstance, but right now it just felt ominous, oppressive, and dangerous.
Which is why as soon as they heard a low groan, Quill jumped about a foot in the air.
“What was that?” Drax asked, too heavily focused on the sound to even make fun of Quill’s fright.
Everyone stopped moving, straining to listen, holding their breaths to not make a sound.
There was another groan, followed by some quiet cursing.
Nebula’s head whipped around, immediately making out the small shadow that was heavily obscured by the fog. She lifted her arm up, the machinery whirring and buzzing as the gun that was embedded in the metal lifted up. She put a finger to her lips, signalling for silence and then pointed at the shadow.
They all nodded, quietly gripping their weapons tighter. Mantis’ antennae started to glow, ready to subdue whatever was out there. They inched as silently as possible towards the sound.
There was movement from the shadow, a shaky intake of breath. “Who’s there?” it asked.
Nebula paused, turning to Thor who’s eyes had widened. He looked at her, the hope in his eyes changing to disbelief and back. They both recognized the voice, having spent so much time listening to that voice over the years that three months of silence could never erase from their minds.
Without meaning to, their steps quickened, forcing the rest of the group to move faster to catch up.
“Who’s there! Who’s out there?” the voice asked again, sounding shaken and uncertain and almost scared.
Nebula broke through the fog first, just as the shadow scrambled to their feet. “Fuck,” Nebula got out, her throat suddenly constricting under the sudden emotion she felt as she took him in. “ Fuck , Tony.” She reached out without hesitation and pulled him into a tight hug.
The hug was solid, real no foreboding feeling that she was going to disappear in a second, and as the rest of the Guardians and Thor and - and Loki? - filtering in through the fog, he decided too much shit was going on, too, too much was happening. He could ask questions after this.
Tony returned the hug, wrapping his arms around Nebula, his unlikeliest ally turned close friend, who was once again helping him in the cruel and vast expanse of space.